“Music Promenade” is one of the best examples of Ferrari’s playful and humorous spirit.
Continuing with their absolutely essential reissue series of early electronic music, the Recollection GRM arm of Editions Mego is remastering and rereleasing more Luc Ferrari pieces, this time “Music Promenade” and “Unheimlich Schön,” two tape works from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Unlike the cohesive concepts behind the “Presque rien” pieces or the stoic mastery of his craft showcased on Hétérozygote / Petite symphonie…—all the subjects of recent releases—Music Promenade / Unheimlich Schön presents Ferrari as a curious, wide-eyed experimenter. If these two works feel less monumental than Ferrari’s more lauded material, they excel in showcasing the composer at two radical extremes of his style.
Originally intended as a surround sound exhibition work where participants’ wandering throughout the gallery space dictate the musical structure, the recorded version of “Music Promenade” offers a more direct narrative. The piece is meant to represent a surreal experience where a quiet stroll through a park is turned manic by a series of interrupting sounds, both conventionally musical and not. Clamorous, marching footsteps underlie a Strauss (not that one) waltz (that one), big brass sounds are as prevalent as dissonant, synthesized harmonies. The whole effect is that of an overwhelming barrage of sound, a musical equivalent to the ultramodern absurdity explored in Jacques Tati’s films from the same era.
Composed between 1964 and 1969, “Music Promenade” is one of the best examples of Ferrari’s playful and humorous spirit. Despite the often lofty qualities associated with early electronica, these core musique concrète artists working out of France were not unaware of the often ludicrous timbres and collages they were constructing—another Ferrari piece, “Strathoven,” is nothing more than a series of bad musical puns built out of a Stravinsky-Beethoven mash-up. The elements of surprise and incongruity play a key role in “Music Promenade,” most jarring in the unexpected stretch of silence that appears about halfway through the piece. After nearly ten minutes of constantly shifting sound worlds, an appeal to blankness is one of the most daring and rewarding moves here.
“Unheimlich Schön,” written in 1971, is the foil to “Music Promenade” in almost every sense. Where “Promenade” employed a seemingly infinite number of sounds and samples, “Unheimlich” is built entirely out of one, repeating phrase; where “Promenade” focused on the chaos of colliding sounds, “Unheimlich” is all about delicate control; and where “Promenade” forced the listener outward, “Unheimlich” draws them in to contemplation. This pairing of pieces that seem totally at odds with each other is a move that reaffirms Recollection GRM’s intent. Rather than try to box Ferrari in as an early auteur of a specific style, the label embraces the litany of sounds, forms and emotions that he reaches for in his music.
“Unheimlich Schön,” then, represents Ferrari’s more patient, pensive side. The piece features a woman whispering the titular phrase (which translates from German to “very nice”) as Ferrari slowly manipulates her speech and breath until this single, non-musical utterance itself becomes a piece of music. The liner notes recommend listening “at a low volume,” and doing so gives the piece an eerie, proto-ASMR type of feeling. By “Unheimlich”’s conclusion, where the stuttering breaths have become quasi-rhythmic and the voice has been filtered and echoed into oblivion, a meditative calm takes over. “Music Promenade” succeeds because it is always upending listener expectations; “Unheimlich Schön” is equally—if not more—of a triumph because it stretches one moment and one idea out past their logical conclusions. It is a succinct and effective example of how to turn the simplest of musical fragments into something magical.
More than anything, the two pieces collected here reaffirm why Ferrari has remained such a unique touchstone for electronic composers and musicians today. Few artists before or since have so heavily committed to exploring every possibility within this medium, eating up any and all contradictions that such an exhaustive process might entail. Where today’s electronic musicians are seeking refuge in limitation after the sonic explosion brought on by high-powered DAWs, Ferrari’s music is the sound of giddy excitement in the face of the perceived limitlessness provided to him by tapes and electronics. Music Promenade / Unheimlich Schön is another testament to the high quality of material that results from such a benevolent spirit.